Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 15 through July 18.


July 15, 1954 – The first flight of the Boeing Dash 80. By the end of WWII, the turbojet engine had become the power plant of the future for aviation. But not everybody was convinced. After all, technological developments in large piston-powered aircraft during the war had made them relatively safe and reliable, and airlines were reluctant to try something new when the aircraft they had were working just fine. The first step towards commercial jet aviation was taken by de Havilland with their Comet airliner, which first flew in 1949. And though the Comet eventually found a measure of success, it was very much a product of an earlier era, with wings that were swept only on the leading edge and four engines housed in the wing roots. Boeing, however, was already looking to the future. Two years before the first flight of the Comet, they had produced the B-47 Stratojet bomber for the US Air Force. Taking data on swept wings that had been captured in Germany during the war, Boeing gave their new bomber a completely swept wing, and placed its engines in pods suspended beneath the wing. In the process, they set the standard for basic airliner design that remains to this day. And it was the Stratojet that inspired Boeing’s foray into the jet airliner business. The international airliner market was still saturated with piston planes, particularly those by Douglas Aircraft, and none of the airlines was willing to buy into an untested airplane. So Boeing figured that the only way to prove that their airliner concept worked was to build and fly one. Boeing president Bill Allen took a huge gamble, and invested $16 million of the company’s money into the development of a prototype airliner that they hoped would satisfy the needs of both the airlines and the US Air Force, who was looking for a jet-powered aerial tanker to keep their new jet fighters in the air. Following just two years of development, Boeing rolled out the Model 367-80, or “Dash 80,” from their Renton, Washington factory on May 15, 1954. Unlike passenger airliners, the Dash 80 had large cargo doors and very few windows, but that is understandable, considering Boeing was pitching it to the Air Force first. Just one week after the first flight, the Air Force ordered 29 aircraft, designating the tanker the KC-135 Stratotanker. But Boeing still needed to convince the airlines that they had a winner on their hands. In 1955, Allen invited airline executives to Seattle’s Seafair festival to get a look at the Dash 80. In what has become a legendary stunt, Boeing test pilot Tex Johnston, who was supposed to do a simple fly by, instead performed a barrel roll in the Dash 80. He later told Allen that he was just “selling airplanes.”

Tex Johnston rolls the Dash 80

But the move paid off, and Pan Am kicked off the new airliner’s success by ordering 20 (though they hedged their bets by also ordering 25 Douglas DC-8s). Two years later, the Boeing 707 took its maiden flight. The 707 was longer than the Dash 80 and KC-135, and the fuselage was widened to allow five-abreast seating, which eventually grew to six-across. Boeing truly had a runaway hit on their hands, eventually building just over 800 KC-135s and just over 1,000 707s. Only one Dash 80 was ever built, and after production of the tanker and airliner began, the Dash 80 was used as a platform for testing components of the upcoming Boeing 727 tri-jet. After the Dash 80's retirement in 1970, Boeing donated the aircraft the Smithsonian Institution in 1972, and it sat at the aircraft boneyard at Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona for 18 years. But such a historic aircraft deserved, and got, a much better fate, and it was finally restored by Boeing in 1990 and flown to Washington, DC, where it was enshrined in 2003 at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. (Boeing photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Advertisement


July 16, 1969 – The launch of Apollo 11. By the early 1960s, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West had become the dominant social and political struggle in the world, and US President John F. Kennedy characterized it in a famous speech to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961 as a “battle...around the world between freedom and tyranny.” While some of those battles were fought in proxy wars between the two nations, the Space Race came to be a potent (and more peaceful) symbol of that struggle and, by 1961, the Russians were far ahead. They had been the first to put a satellite into earth orbit in 1957 with Sputnik 1, and were the first to put a man into space when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth on April 12, 1961. President Kennedy’s speech six weeks after that historic flight galvanized the United States into action, and set the goal of being the first nation to put a man on the Moon. Though Kennedy and NASA trumpeted the scientific gains from such an achievement, he made it clear in a speech on September 12, 1962 at Rice University in Houston that beating the Russians to the Moon was as much a matter of national security as it was a matter of scientific discovery.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.

Advertisement

Following President Kennedy’s declaration to go to the Moon, NASA began working on the technological means to get there. Project Mecury, which was currently underway and carried a single astronaut to space, was followed by Project Gemini, which carried two astronauts into space and put the US ahead of the Russians for good in the race to the Moon. The Apollo program which followed was be the most ambitious yet, and it made its first flight of an unmanned rocket in 1966. Development and testing progressed, and the first manned flight was to have been Apollo 1, but a fire in the Command Module during testing on February 21, 1967 killed the three astronauts onboard. The first manned flight, Apollo 7, took place the following year. Apollo 11 was the fifth manned mission of the program, with the four previous missions used to test systems for the voyage and landing, with Apollo 10 coming within 50,000 feet of the lunar surface. Apollo 11 launched atop the mighty three-stage Saturn V rocket, which carried the Apollo Command/Service Module and Lunar Module into orbit around the Moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins arrived at the Moon on July 19, and completed 30 orbits before Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the Moon’s surface on July 20 while Collins remained in orbit in the Command Module. The Lunar Module, piloted by Armstrong, touched down on the Moon at 20:17:40 UTC on Sunday, July 20, and Aldrin radioed to Earth, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Armstrong descended the Lander’s ladder on July 21 and became the first human to set foot on the Moon, where he spoke the now-famous words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong and Aldrin spent about two-and-a-half hours exploring the area around the Lander and collected about 48 pounds of rocks and other lunar material.

Astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin salutes the American flag on the Moon

They also planted an American flag on the Moon as a symbol of American achievement, the first of an eventual six flags that were placed by subsequent Apollo missions. But that flag carried a message of both victory in the Space Race and a tacit sense of ownership of the Moon. The Russians eventually abandoned their attempts to reach the Moon, focusing instead on their efforts to maintain a manned presence in Earth orbit. After roughly 22 hours on the Moon’s surface, Armstrong and Aldrin climbed aboard the Command Module and the three astronauts returned to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24. There would be six more Apollo missions to the Moon, including the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission which did not land on the Moon yet safely returned the astronauts to Earth. The final flight of the Apollo program was Apollo 17 in 1972. After Apollo 17, the remaining Apollo hardware was used for the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz projects. (NASA photos)

Advertisement


July 17, 1989 – The first flight of the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit. Though the B-2 looks like something from the pages of science fiction, the flying wing is nothing new. Jack Northrop began experimenting with long-range flying wing bombers in the years following WWII, first with the Northrop YB-35 and then with the jet-powered YB-49. Though the concept never caught on—or was killed for political reasons—it was not forgotten. In 1979, the US Air Force initiated the Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) program to find a replacement for the venerable Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. The new bomber was also developed to take advantages of advances in stealth technology, which, while not making an aircraft invisible to radar, made it practically undistinguishable from other radar clutter. Lockheed was the first to take advantage of stealth, proving the concepts and putting it into practice with the super-secret Lockheed Have Blue program. They followed that with the successful development of the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, which first flew in 1981. Stealth had become a reality, and it would become an integral element of any future bomber under development. As the ATB program progressed, the Air Force took proposals from defense contractors for the new bomber and narrowed their selection down to proposals from Northrop/Boeing, codenamed “Senior Ice,” and a team from Lockheed/Rockwell codenamed “Senior Peg.” Both groups suggested a flying wing design and, in October 1981, the Air Force selected Northrop’s entry. Unlike the flat, faceted shape of the earlier Have Blue and F-117 designs, advances in computer aided design in the 1980s now allowed for similar radar deflection capabilities with a curved surface. Gone were the sharp angles and flat panels, replaced by a rounded fuselage centered in a wing swept at 34.74 degrees. And not only does the B-2 resemble the earlier Northrop flying wings, it shares the same wingspan with the YB-49. Four General Electric F-118 turbofans buried deep inside the fuselage give the Spirit a maximum speed of Mach 0.95, and the B-2 can carry an estimated 50,000 pounds of nuclear or conventional weapons inside two internal bomb bays. The radar cross-section (RCS) of the Spirit is just 1.1 square feet for an aircraft with a wing area of over 5,000 square feet. By 1989, it is estimated that the US spent $23 billion developing the new bomber.

Advertisement

One of three U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bomber aircraft returns to Whitman AFB in Missouri after a mission over Libya as part of Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn.

Despite its original mission of avoiding detection while penetrating deep into the Soviet Union to deliver a nuclear weapon, the B-2 saw its first action in 1999 as part of Operation Allied Force in the former Yugoslavia, and became the first US warplane to deploy the JDAM satellite-guided bomb. B-2s saw additional action in Iraq and Afghanistan and, during Operation Enduring Freedom, B-2s flew from Whiteman AFB in Missouri to bomb targets in Afghanistan, a 40 hour flight with aerial refueling. The B-2 has also flown missions against ISIS militants in Libya and Syria. A total of twenty-one Spirits have been built since they entered service in 1997 (one was lost to a crash in 2008), and the Air Force expects them to serve until 2058, only eighteen years longer than the B-52s they were meant to replace. (US Air Force photos)


Short Takeoff


Advertisement

July 15, 1975 – The launch of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. As a symbol of the policy of détente pursued by the US and the Soviet Union which began in 1969, the Test Project was the first joint space program initiated by the two Cold War adversaries. Both the Apollo and Soyuz capsules launched on the same date and rendezvoused in space, with the three astronauts and two cosmonauts joining hands and passing between the two docked spacecraft. The crews then carried out joint scientific experiments. The ships remained docked for 44 hours before separating and returning safely to Earth. (NASA illustration)


Advertisement

July 15, 1942 – The US flies its first supply mission from India to China over the Himalayas. In the early days of the fight against Japanese expansion in the Pacific, the only way to resupply Chinese and American troops fighting in China was by flying over the eastern Himalayan Mountains, which pilots referred to as “The Hump.” The dangerous and arduous supply missions, flown first by Douglas C-47 Skytrains and later by the untested Curtiss C-46 Commando, eventually ferried 650,000 tons of supplies against the loss of 594 aircraft and nearly 1,700 personnel. (US Air Force photo)


Advertisement

July 15, 1916 – William Boeing founds the Pacific Aero Products Company, the forerunner of the Boeing Airplane Company. After finding success in the lumber industry, Boeing turned his attention to aircraft, going into business with George Westervelt to found the Pacific Aero Products Group and building their first aircraft, the Model 1. With America’s entry into WWI, Boeing changed the name to Boeing Airplane Company and built 50 airplanes for the US Navy. Following the war, Boeing concentrated on commercial aircraft, and built an airmail operation that eventually became United Airlines. William Boeing left the company in 1937, but Boeing went on to become one of the biggest manufacturers of civilian and military aircraft in the world. (Boeing photo via Los Angeles Times; Model 40 photo author unknown via flysfo.com)


Advertisement

July 16, 1999 – The death of John F. Kennedy, Jr, the only surviving son of US President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Kennedy had departed Essex County Airport in New Jersey in his Piper PS-32R Saratoga (N9253N) for a flight along the Connecticut coastline to Martha’s Vineyard when the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing Kennedy along with his wife Caroline Bessette and her sister Lauren. The National Transportation Safety Board cited the probable cause as pilot error, saying that Kennedy became disoriented while flying over water at night. Kennedy was not qualified for instrument flight conditions, and while conditions at the time did not require IFR flying, other pilots cited the lack of a visual horizon due to hazy conditions. (Piper PA-32R photo—not crash aircraft—by Tony Hisgett via Wikimedia Commons; Kennedy photo via NASA)


Advertisement

July 16, 1965 – The first flight of the North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco, a lightweight, STOL aircraft developed for the US Army, Air Force and Marine Corps for observation, forward air control, helicopter escort, armed reconnaissance, gunfire spotting, utility and ground attack. Despite its diminutive size, the Bronco can carry up to 6,000 pounds of external stores, as well as paratroops or stretchers, and its turboprop engines allow for at least three hours of loiter time over the battlefield. The Bronco first saw service with the US Marine Corps in Vietnam, and has since served both the US Air Force and US Navy. In civilian use, the Bronco has served NASA and as a firefighting aircraft, and military versions have recently returned to the skies over Afghanistan and Syria in the fight against ISIS. (US Air Force photo)


Advertisement

July 16, 1948 – The first flight of the Vickers Viscount, a medium range, pressurized airliner and the first airliner in the world to employ turboprop engines, becoming one of the most popular and successful post-war transport and cargo aircraft. Development of the Viscount resulted from the work of the Brabazon Committee, a group founded to promote civilian aviation in England following WWII. The Viscount entered service with British European Airways (BEA) in 1953, providing the world’s first turboprop-powered passenger service and proving so successful that 160 aircraft had been ordered by only the second year of operations. A total of 445 were produced from 1948-1963, and the type was finally retired in 2008. (Photo by Arpingstone via Wikimedia Commons)


Advertisement

July 17, 2014 – Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine. Following the unexplained disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 over the southern Indian Ocean, Malaysian Airlines was again hit with tragedy when a second Boeing 777-200ER (9M-MRO) was shot down by an antiaircraft missile over war-torn eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew. Much argument and acrimony remains over who is responsible. The Ukrainian government blames Russian-backed separatists, while the separatists blame the Ukranian government, and both sides in the ongoing conflict have the weapons necessary to bring down an aircraft cruising at 33,000 feet. Despite an investigation by the Dutch government, it may never be ascertained who fired the missile that destroyed the airliner. (Photo by Laurent Errera via Wikimedia Commons)


Advertisement

July 17, 1996 – A midair explosion destroys TWA Flight 800. TWA 800 was a regularly scheduled flight from New York to Rome when the Boeing 747-131 (N91339) exploded in midair shortly after takeoff, killing all 230 passengers and crew. No distress call was ever made prior to the explosion, and cockpit conversations appeared to be normal, except that just before the explosion the captain remarked about a “crazy fuel flow indicator.” In one of the most exhaustive investigations ever carried out, as much debris as could be found was brought to the surface and assembled in a hangar in Calverton, NY. After a four-year investigation, the final NTSB report pointed to the likely cause being the explosion of a fuel/air mixture in the center fuel tank that was ignited by an undetermined short circuit. Despite this explanation, conspiracy theories abound to this day, one of the most persistent being that the airliner was shot down by a missile fired either by the US Navy or by terrorists in a boat or on shore. However, evidence for these theories remains circumstantial. (Photo by Eduard Marmet via Wikimedia Commons)


Advertisement

July 17, 1939 – The first flight of the Bristol Beaufighter, a multi-role fighter bomber developed during WWII as a development of the Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber. Originally conceived as a heavy fighter, the Beaufighter was subsequently developed into a night fighter and maritime strike and ground attack aircraft. Entering service at almost the same time as the first airborne radar sets, the Beaufighter’s large nose was big enough to accommodate the large radar sets of the time, and its heavy armament of four 20 mm cannons made it ideal to defend against German bombers. The Beaufighter also served RAF Coastal Command and in the Pacific, and flew as late as 1948 for the Israeli Air Force. Nearly 6,000 Beaufighters were produced from 1940-1946. (Canadian Forces photo)


Advertisement

July 17, 1938 – Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan departs from Floyd Bennett Field and flies to Ireland. Corrigan worked as an aircraft constructor in San Diego before taking up flying and, inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean 1937, he decided to emulate the feat. Corrigan failed to gain permission for his flight, and after departing Floyd Bennett Field in New York for a planned return flight to California, he instead turned his Curtiss Robin monoplane east and flew to Ireland. He claimed that it was a navigational error that led to his wrong-way flight, but his plane was nevertheless modified to carry extra fuel for the journey. Corrigan never admitted that his mistake was intentional, and he and his plane returned to the US on the steamship SS Manhattan. (US Air Force photos)


Advertisement

July 17, 1914 – The first flight of the Vickers F.B.5, a two-seat pusher biplane and the first purpose-built fighter plane ever produced. Known familiarly as the Gunbus, the F.B.5 was powered by a single Gnome Monosoupape 9-cylinder engine which gave it a top speed of 70 mph, and was armed with a single 7.7mm Lewis gun in the forward observer’s cockpit. The F.B.5 entered service in November 1914 and claimed its first victory over a German Etrich Taube monoplane. By 1915, the F.B.5 equipped the world’s first dedicated fighter squadron. By the end of the year it was outclassed by newer German designs, and was retired to serve as a trainer. A total of 224 were built. (Replica F.B.5 photo by RuthAS via Wikimedia Commons)


Advertisement

July 18, 2002 – The first flight of the Boeing YAL-1, a modified Boeing 747-400F that was armed with a megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) to provide defense against tactical ballistic missiles. The program to fit a flying laser was initiated in 1996, with the laser provided by Northrop Grumman housed in a turret built by Lockheed Martin. In 2007, the system was test-fired at an airborne target for the first time, with a second successful test in 2010, then a third which destroyed two test missiles. The program was canceled in 2011, and the YAL-1 was flown to Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona where it was put in storage before being scrapped in 2014. (Air Force photo)


Advertisement

July 18, 1942 – The first jet-powered flight of the Messerschmitt Me 262. Though the first flight of the Me 262, nicknamed Schwalbe (Swallow), had taken place more than a year earlier, delays in development of the Junkers Jumo 004 axial-flow turbojets meant that the 262's first flight was made using a single Junkers Jumo 210 piston engine mounted in the nose. Development continued following the first jet-powered flight, and the Me 262 entered service in July 1942, eventually claiming 542 victories over Allied aircraft. However, difficulties with reliability of the early jet engines, and Allied attacks on Me 262 fuel supplies, hampered the operational capability of the jet fighter, and its impact on the war was ultimately negligible. (Photo of replica Me 262 by Noop1958 via Wikimedia Commons)


Recent Aviation History Posts


Advertisement


If you enjoy these Aviation History posts, please let me know in the comments. And if you missed any of the past articles, you can find them all at Planelopnik History. You can also find more stories about aviation and aviators at Wingspan and Planes You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of.

Advertisement